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Ars Technica
Syndicate content Ars Technica
Serving the Technologist for more than a decade. IT news, reviews, and analysis.
Updated: 35 min 51 sec ago

Veteran astronauts endorse NASA’s program for a return to the Moon

1 hour 20 min ago

Enlarge / In May, the test version of Orion attached to the Launch Abort System for the Ascent Abort-2 flight test arrives at Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (credit: NASA)

On Monday during a conference held in Houston, several veteran astronauts endorsed NASA's plan to return to the Moon. However, they also characterized the goal of landing humans there by 2024 as aspirational rather than realistic.

"It's quite aggressive," said four-time astronaut Michael López-Alegría of the Artemis Program's five-year timeline. López-Alegría, who is president of the Association of Space Explorers, made his comments during the organization's annual meeting.

He added that it was not a bad thing to have an aggressive plan. Rather, it was good for NASA and its international partners to have a clear goal to work toward. "I think that in any complex program like that, somebody needs to draw a line in the sand," he said. "It may be aspirational, but without something like that, it's really difficult to get people pulling in the same direction."

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Microsoft wants to use AI to bleep out bad words in Xbox Live party chat

1 hour 45 min ago

Enlarge / "I'm so happy that I didn't hear whatever curse word you just screamed at me during our friendly game of Uno on Xbox Live!" (credit: Future Publishing / Getty Images)

Today, Microsoft announced that it's rolling out filters that will let Xbox Live players automatically limit the text-based messages they receive to four maturity tiers: "Friendly, Medium, Mature, and Unfiltered." That's a long-overdue feature for a major communication platform that's well over a decade old now, but not really anything new in terms of online content moderation writ large.

What's more interesting is a "looking ahead" promise Microsoft made at the end of the announcement (emphasis added):

Ultimately our vision is to supplement our existing efforts and leverage our company efforts in AI and machine learning technology to provide filtration across all types of content on Xbox Live, delivering control to each and every individual player. Your feedback is more important than ever as we continue to evolve this experience and make Xbox a safe, welcome and inclusive place to game.

That's all a bit vague, but The Verge reports on the real thrust of that passage: an effort by the company to "tackle the challenge of voice chat toxicity on Xbox Live." That means leveraging Microsoft's existing efforts in speech-to-text machine-learning algorithms to automatically filter out swear words that might come up in an Xbox Live party chat.

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AT&T charged customers for a corporate tax that it doesn’t have to pay

3 hours 44 min ago

Enlarge / An AT&T store in Chicago. (credit: Getty Images | jetcityimage)

AT&T charged customers in Portland, Oregon for a corporate tax that AT&T doesn't actually have to pay. AT&T has agreed to provide refunds to customers who were wrongly charged the tax over the past few months, but it's facing a lawsuit that seeks additional payments of at least $200 to each of those customers.

AT&T's mistake relates to Portland's new Clean Energy Surcharge, a 1% tax on retail sales in the city. AT&T has been passing this tax along to its mobile customers, even though the city law exempts utilities such as AT&T from the tax.

"The city only recently notified us that we are exempt from the tax," AT&T said a statement Friday, according to The Oregonian. "We will be issuing refunds to our customers."

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The world’s oldest leftovers, left in Pleistocene storage containers

3 hours 49 min ago

Enlarge / SAMSUNG (credit: By 66AVI - צילמתי, CC BY-SA 3.0,

At Qesem Cave in Israel, Neanderthals or early Homo sapiens appear to have stored marrow-rich deer bones for several weeks, relying on the bones and their outer layer of dried skin and flesh to keep the marrow relatively fresh—like storing leftovers in Pleistocene Tupperware.

Based on the cut marks on the bones, people extracted the marrow after a few weeks, when the bones and their covering of skin and tendons had had time to dry out. That suggests the people who lived at Qesem were planning ahead for their future needs—which is one more piece of evidence that Neanderthals and the earliest members of our own species were smarter than we’ve often given them credit for.

Stone Age Tupperware

People of various groups have lived at Qesem Cave off and on for hundreds of thousands of years. Archaeologists haven’t found hominin fossils at the site so far, but in the oldest layers of artifacts, they’ve unearthed oval and pear-shaped handaxes in the Acheulian style—a stone calling card of Homo erectus or their descendants, Homo heidelbergensis. In layers dating from 300,000 to 200,000 years old, the stone blades and scrapers belong to a set of stone tool cultures called the Acheulo-Yabrudian, which has turned up at Neanderthal and early Homo sapiens sites.

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Comet from another Solar System looks a lot like our own

4 hours 25 min ago

Enlarge / Comet C/2019 Q4 (Borisov). Note the fuzzy appearance and faint tail. (credit: Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope)

Interactions among the small bodies of our Solar System are expected to hurl small objects out into interstellar space with some regularity, and the frequency was probably much higher early in the system's history. Given that the same thing almost certainly happens at exosolar systems—and we now know there are a lot of those—it's likely that the vast volume of interstellar space is lightly sprinkled with small objects, some of which may sporadically pass through our own Solar System. But up until very recently, we'd had no evidence of their existence.

That situation changed with the discovery of 'Oumuamua, a strange, cigar-shaped body that was the first confirmed exosolar visitor. But 'Oumuamua was so strange that it set some astronomers speculating that it could be an alien craft. Earlier this year, however, scientists spotted a second potential exosolar visitor, and this one looked a lot like a comet. Now, the first data on the object, 2I/Borisov, is in, and it's clearly exosolar in origin but looks so much like our existing comets that we might not have realized where it was from if we didn't have a good grip on its orbit.

The Crusher

The results come from quick work by a team of European researchers, who got a heads-up about 2I/Borisov's existence due to a software package they put in place. The code, called "Interstellar Crusher," is a Python software package that scans the Possible Comet Confirmation Page for new objects and attempts to calculate their orbits as they come in. As we described in our earlier coverage of 2I/Borisov, orbits that have a certain set of properties, called hyperbolic orbits, indicate that a body has come from outside our Solar System. These orbits indicate a body will only pass by the Sun once and originate from a source that's far outside the plane in which our planets orbit.

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“The Switcher” is real: Witcher 3 on Switch is a blurry, tolerable compromise

5 hours 20 min ago

Enlarge / In good news, you can boot straight into expansion content when loading this version of The Witcher 3. I imagine more than a few fans of the game will use this Switch version to dive deeply into either or both of the expansions.

Since Nintendo's Switch console launched in 2016, we've seen no shortage of holy-cow ports of games we never thought would work on what turned out to be the most underpowered console of this generation. Doom 2016, Dark Souls, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Wolfenstein: The New Colossus—that's a list of demanding 3D games I never expected to launch on Switch, let alone games I'd actually recommend for the system.

But I do so with a pretty hefty asterisk attached. The charm of these games on Switch comes almost entirely due to them being playable on the go, at which point their severe compromises (image quality, rendering resolution) become much more acceptable. What looks iffy on a full-sized TV is easier to shrug off when seen on a six-inch 720p panel.

This week marks the arrival of arguably the most holy-cow port yet on the portable console: CD Projekt Red's 2015 action-RPG The Witcher 3. This is a game, after all, whose other console versions required quite a few patches to get their most troublesome spots up to a locked 30 frames per second. We went hands-on over the weekend with the game's final retail version (which launches for Switch on Tuesday) to answer a crucial question: could we expect playability in CDPR's acclaimed adventure game on an even weaker system?

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Sikorsky makes its bid for Army’s next scout copter

5 hours 27 min ago

Enlarge / An artist's rendering of Sikorsky's proposed Raider X attack-scout helicopter. (credit: Sikorsky)

As the Association of the US Army (AUSA) kicks off its annual Washington, DC meeting—a combination of Army conference and land-warfare trade show—Lockheed Martin's Sikorsky unit has unveiled the company's entry into the Army's Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) design shoot-out. As predicted, the "Raider X" is based heavily on the S-97 Raider demonstrator that Sikorsky showed off at the 2015 AUSA conference.

But there are some significant differences in the proposed design, differences that echo an earlier attempt by the Army to build a light-attack helicopter. Much like Bell's Invictus design, the Raider X's stealthy design bears a passing resemblance to the Boeing/Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche.

Sikorsky's video introducing the Raider X design.

The Raider X has the same side-by-side crew configuration as the Raider demonstrator. But instead of additional crew and passenger seating, it has modular internal weapons and sensor mounts, reducing its potential radar cross-section. As with Bell's Invictus, the design included a "Modern Open Systems Architecture"-based avionics suite, theoretically allowing for rapid and low-cost upgrades over the life of the aircraft. And as with the S-97 before it, the Raider X is designed to be "optionally manned"—meaning that it can be flown remotely or operate autonomously for missions that either don't require an aircrew or would put aircrew at an unacceptable risk.

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How well has China’s ultra low-emissions policy worked?

5 hours 45 min ago

In 2014, China introduced an ambitious policy to rapidly reduce air pollution from coal-fired power stations. How well did that work?

A paper published in Nature Energy last week analyzed data from pollution monitoring systems and found dramatic changes. According to the monitoring data, China's emissions of some common air pollutants dropped by 65% to 72% in just three years.

China shoots for clean skies

Air pollution is a global health crisis, and China's pollution problem is particularly severe: in 2017 alone, nearly a million deaths were attributed to pollution.

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Video: How (and why) Blizzard finally ported Overwatch to Switch

6 hours 12 min ago

Video shot by Ross Buran and edited by Aulistar Mark. Click here for transcript.

Two weeks ago, Ars visited Blizzard Entertainment's headquarters in Irvine, California, to get hands-on time with popular hero-based, multiplayer shooter Overwatch on Nintendo's portable Switch game console.

We also talked with game director Jeff Kaplan and Overwatch Switch producer Wes Yanagi about why Blizzard decided to do this now, what the challenges were, and what players should expect to be different about the Switch version from launch into the future.

For the interview, check out the video above. For impressions, keep on reading.

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Dealmaster: There’s a bunch of newer video games on sale at Amazon today

6 hours 31 min ago

Enlarge (credit: IGDB)

Greetings, Arsians! The Dealmaster is back with a special batch of deals to share for Columbus Day. Amazon is currently having a sale on a number of Xbox One and PS4 games, many of which normally go for $50 to $60 but are now priced much lower.

Notable titles such as Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Devil May Cry 5, Resident Evil 2, and Mortal Kombat 11 are all at the lowest prices we've seen, or close to it, but the sale also includes brand-new titles as well. Gears 5, Control, and Borderlands 3, all of which came out within the past two months, are the newest and arguably biggest titles on sale right, and now you can get Gears 5 and Control for around $37.50 and Borderlands 3 for $44.99.

Almost all of the games in Amazon's sale have extra discounts tacked on at checkout, so don't be alarmed if you don't see the sale price immediately when you add them to your cart. The additional savings will be accounted for when you see the final price right before you place your order.

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New drug-pricing data shows stunning hikes—one whopping 667% increase

6 hours 38 min ago

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Ute Grabowsky )

Pharmaceutical companies continue to raise prices on hundreds of drugs at rates well over that of inflation, according to a newly released report on drug-pricing data.

The data was made public thanks to a mandate from a California transparency law passed in 2017. Under the law, drug makers are required to report their price increases quarterly. This is the first report from the law and includes data on drugs that had price increases of 16% or more over their January 2017 prices.

The hikes in these cases are to the wholesale acquisition cost, which is the list price for wholesalers—they may not reflect how much patients will pay out of pocket. Still, they can add to overall healthcare spending and drive up the costs of insurance.

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Liveblog: Google’s Pixel 4 (and friends) launch event starts 10/15

7 hours 20 min ago

Enlarge / Google's first official picture of the Pixel 4. (credit: Google)

It's that time of year again! Google's big hardware event kicks off Tuesday, October 15 at 10am Eastern, and we'll be there with full live coverage of the event. That starts with a liveblog, where we'll be covering everything announced at the show as it happens.

This year should see a whole suite of Google products launch. Headlining the event will be Google's next smartphone, the Pixel 4, with a 90Hz display, an air-gesture system powered by Google's radar "Soli" technology, and a next-gen version of the Google Assistant. There should also be a new Pixelbook, the Pixelbook Go, which sees a return to a more traditional form factor after the collapse of the Pixel Slate.

With Nest's recent demotion from a standalone company to a Google smart home sub-brand, we should see two new products with the weird branding of "Google Nest." We're expecting to see a sequel to the Google Wifi called the "Google Nest Wifi." This new rev of Google's mesh Wi-Fi system will reportedly have a primary router that hooks up to your modem and then several satellite devices that are both Wi-Fi mesh nodes and Google Home speakers that accept Google Assistant voice command and can play music. A second-gen Google Home Mini should also launch at the show with an aux jack and better sound, and this one will be rebranded "Google Nest Mini."

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After a “corrective action,” Boeing back at work on SLS rocket core stage

7 hours 55 min ago

Nearly a month ago, NASA announced that Boeing had assembled the core stage structure that forms the backbone of its Space Launch System rocket. This meant that all technicians needed to do to complete the full core stage was bolt on four space shuttle main engines and connect their plumbing.

Completing the core stage at NASA's rocket factory, the Michoud Assembly Facility in Southern Louisiana, would represent a significant milestone for the program. However, after assembling the core stage structure in September, two sources familiar with Boeing's work at the factory said the company had to "stand down" operations due to some issues.

“Corrective action”

Now, NASA officials have provided a little information about the causes of the delay. In a statement, the space agency's headquarters told Ars that "NASA initiated a forward looking corrective action request focused on improving the production system in preparation for Core Stage 2 and beyond." As a result of this corrective action, which was not specified, "Boeing chose to stand down in some areas and ensure the whole production team was aware of the intent behind the corrective action request."

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I watched over 100 Tesla Smart Summon videos—here’s what I learned

9 hours 20 min ago

Enlarge (credit: Getty / Aurich Lawson)

In late September, Tesla released a major software update that included a new feature called Smart Summon. It enables a customer to summon their car from across a parking lot with no one inside—though the owner is expected to continuously monitor the car from outside.

People immediately started testing the feature and documenting their experiences on social media. Over the last few weeks I've watched more than 100 YouTube videos of people testing out Smart Summon. I've also read dozens of comments on Twitter, Reddit, and Tesla forums discussing the new feature.

Smart Summon worked well enough for most owners, but a fair number of them experienced problems. Take well-known YouTuber Judner Aura, for example. He had his cousin walk in front of his Tesla car as it turned out of a parking spot. The car got uncomfortably close to his cousin before Aura halted the test.

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The $103,800 Porsche Taycan 4S electric car will arrive in Spring 2020

9 hours 44 min ago

A lot of expectations grew in the build up to the launch of Porsche's Taycan electric vehicle. After our first drive a few weeks ago, it was clear that the Taycan Turbo and Turbo S are deeply accomplished cars—Porsches first and foremost, that just happen to be electric. And being Porsches, they weren't exactly cheap: the Taycan Turbo starts at $150,900 and the Turbo S begins at $185,000. On Monday morning, Porsche filled in the blank many of us were waiting for with news that the next Taycan variant, called the Taycan 4S, will arrive in Spring 2020. And this one is a lot cheaper—at least by Porsche standards.

The Taycan 4S, like the more expensive versions, has an all-wheel drive layout with permanent synchronous magnet motors driving each axle. The rear motor still gets a two-speed transmission, and like the Taycan Turbo it uses a 300V inverter for the front motor and 600V in the rear. The biggest differences are the battery and power output. The Taycan 4S has two battery and motor options: a single-layer 79kWh battery and 390kW (552hp) total power output, which costs $103,800; or the same double-layer 93kWh battery from the Turbo and Turbo S, which has a total power output of 420kW (563hp), which will cost $110,380. (All prices are before the $7,500 IRS tax credit or any local incentives.) Range for either version of the Taycan 4S has yet to be calculated by the EPA.

The single-layer battery also charges at a slightly reduced rate, maxing out at 225kW compared to 270kW for the double-layer 93kWh pack. As long as the battery is preheated and the state of charge is below 20 percent, both packs should reach 80 percent after 22.5 minutes connected to an 800V DC fast charger. Porsche says all Taycan 4S buyers will get 30 minute charging at Electrify America fast chargers free for three years, as well as free fast charging at Porsche dealers around the country. Like Audi, Porsche has partnered with Amazon to make the process of getting a home charger installed as painless as possible.

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Covering the Nobels—is it worth the bother?

October 13, 2019 - 2:30pm

Enlarge / The tail side of the Jean Dausset's Nobel Medal. Dausset received the prize in 1980. (credit: João Trindade / Flickr)

One thing we do regularly at Ars is try out new types of content. We can make some pretty informed guesses as to what our readers will want to see but still find ourselves surprised at times—who knew you guys would be such big archeology fans?

But you readers have made it very clear that you're really not into scientific awards and prizes. We've tried out a number and received a clear message: not interested. The one, not-surprising exception had been the Nobel Prizes, which consistently drew a significant readership. (That shouldn't be much of a surprise, given that our science section started out as a blog named Nobel Intent.)

But that's started to change over the last couple of years, and with the falling reader interest, we're starting to re-evaluate our decision to cover these prizes. So, what follows is an attempt to spell out the pros and cons of Nobel coverage and an opportunity for you to give us your thoughts on the matter.

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Dyson kills its plan to challenge Tesla with an electric car

October 13, 2019 - 2:00pm

Enlarge / James Dyson, founder and chairman of Dyson Ltd., speaks during the launch of the Airwrap product during the company's beauty technology launch event in New York on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018. (credit: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

James Dyson, the inventor and Brexiteer, revealed in 2017 that his company was planning on making an electric vehicle. The plan was to invest $3.2 billion (£2.5 billion) in the project, which would capitalize on the company's expertise with smaller electric motors—the ones in his vacuum cleaners—as well as developing solid-state batteries to power the vehicle. The battery EV was due to arrive in 2021 and would have been built not in the UK but in Singapore. But now, those plans are cancelled.

Despite developing what he referred to as "a fantastic car," in an email to his staff Dyson revealed that "[t]hough we have tried very hard throughout the development process, we simply can no longer see a way to make it commercially viable." Which is bad news for the 532 employees who have been working on the Dyson BEV for the last four years, although the company will do its best to absorb those workers into other roles.

In the email, Dyson revealed that he had been trying to find a buyer for the project but was unable to do so. This difficulty will come as no surprise to industry watchers; although Tesla has managed to establish itself as a car company, it's had a harder time making money selling those cars. Meanwhile, other more recent entrants like Faraday Future and Nio have had an ever rougher time.

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Planting tiny spy chips in hardware can cost as little as $200

October 13, 2019 - 11:51am

Enlarge (credit: Carl Drougge)

More than a year has passed since Bloomberg Businessweek grabbed the lapels of the cybersecurity world with a bombshell claim: that Supermicro motherboards in servers used by major tech firms, including Apple and Amazon, had been stealthily implanted with a chip the size of a rice grain that allowed Chinese hackers to spy deep into those networks. Apple, Amazon, and Supermicro all vehemently denied the report. The National Security Agency dismissed it as a false alarm. The Defcon hacker conference awarded it two Pwnie Awards, for "most overhyped bug" and "most epic fail." And no follow-up reporting has yet affirmed its central premise.

But even as the facts of that story remain unconfirmed, the security community has warned that the possibility of the supply chain attacks it describes is all too real. The NSA, after all, has been doing something like it for years, according to the leaks of whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Now researchers have gone further, showing just how easily and cheaply a tiny, tough-to-detect spy chip could be planted in a company's hardware supply chain. And one of them has demonstrated that it doesn't even require a state-sponsored spy agency to pull it off—just a motivated hardware hacker with the right access and as little as $200 worth of equipment.

At the CS3sthlm security conference later this month, security researcher Monta Elkins will show how he created a proof-of-concept version of that hardware hack in his basement. He intends to demonstrate just how easily spies, criminals, or saboteurs with even minimal skills, working on a shoestring budget, can plant a chip in enterprise IT equipment to offer themselves stealthy backdoor access. (Full disclosure: I'll be speaking at the same conference, which paid for my travel and is providing copies of my forthcoming book to attendees.) With only a $150 hot-air soldering tool, a $40 microscope, and some $2 chips ordered online, Elkins was able to alter a Cisco firewall in a way that he says most IT admins likely wouldn't notice, yet would give a remote attacker deep control.

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Visa, Mastercard, Stripe, and eBay all quit Facebook’s Libra in one day

October 12, 2019 - 4:40pm

Enlarge (credit: Getty / Aurich Lawson)

Facebook's embattled Libra project suffered a major blow on Friday as four payment processors—Stripe, Visa, Mastercard, and Mercado Pago—withdrew from participation in the Libra Association, the Geneva-based group Facebook created to develop the virtual currency. eBay also announced its resignation Friday. eBay's former subsidiary, PayPal, quit the group last week.

The timing is not a coincidence. The Libra Association is scheduled to hold its first official meeting on Monday. At that meeting, members will be asked to make binding commitments to the project. So for members who weren't prepared to commit to the project, Friday was a good day to get out.

But this is an awkward development for Facebook. When the company introduced Libra earlier this year, it said it hoped to grow Libra's membership from 27 companies to more than 100 by the time the Libra network launched in 2020. Instead, the association's membership has fallen to 22 companies.

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Activists’ phones targeted by one of the world’s most advanced spyware apps

October 12, 2019 - 2:30pm

Enlarge (credit: ShellyS / Flickr)

Mobile phones of two prominent human rights activists were repeatedly targeted with Pegasus, the highly advanced spyware made by Israel-based NSO, researchers from Amnesty International reported this week.

The Moroccan human rights defenders received SMS text messages containing links to malicious sites. If clicked, the sites would attempt to install Pegasus, which as reported here and here, is one of the most advanced and full-featured pieces of spyware ever to come to light. One of the activists was also repeatedly subjected to attacks that redirected visits intended for Yahoo to malicious sites. Amnesty International identified the targets as activist Maâti Monjib and human rights lawyer Abdessadak El Bouchattaoui.

Serial pwner

It's not the first time NSO spyware has been used to surveil activists or dissidents. In 2016, United Arab Emirates dissident Ahmed Mansoor received text messages that tried to lure him to a site that would install Pegasus on his fully patched iPhone. The site relied on three separate zeroday vulnerabilities in iOS. According to previous reports from Univision, Amnesty International, and University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab, NSO spyware has also targeted:

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